OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Haiku Odsdottir Persia

48. Raiders from Below

ilead awakens to find himself in a circular crystal chamber. He is not alone. There are others with him. Besides Kamlak, there are a Hill Tribe barbarian woman named Batilla, a half-human half-goat creature named Capricus, and a strange little man named Po, who claims to come from someplace called Qin.

Their chamber is a very strange prison. If they attempt to leave through one of the two doors, they immediately appear at the other one. Capricus explains the place is called "the Circular Room," and that it is invisible from the outside. After Kamlak has awoken, Lucaius enters the room. He explains that each of them has been rescued from supposed death. They are told that their benefactor wishes to remain anonymous, since he has a rather dangerous job for the to perform. They will be given their chance to strike back at their oppressor. They will be trained as assassins and give n special abilities. When the time and their number are right, they will be set loose to slay Helios, the Most High.

Time passes quickly. They are taught to fight together as a team. They are taught the layout of the city between here and their goal. They are told what sort of resistance they might expect. Though they have no calendar, Gilead suspects they might have trained for months.

Meanwhile, Tira finds her domestic drudgery broken by two activities. First, she is learning all she can of the different ways of Spirit Mastery. She learns that there are a half-dozen different disciplines practiced in the city. She learns that most of the masters of these disciplines are preserved and kept from dying through various arts. Some of them have been on the city for generations. She has a general idea from a map of Ossa's, where the Celestial City has traveled.

Second, she is trying in every unguarded moment to contact Carina again. Slowly she grows more facile with it the link until it becomes easy for her to reach that state of blankness necessary. Carina has little idea of what she has been used for. She has trouble understanding that there are other cities, for instance. Tira patiently explains that the collection of rocks and wood over which she has repeatedly flown is like a sprawling earthbound city. The ship shows a vague understanding. Obviously the ship's senses and thought processes are foreign to her. Nevertheless, she continues to work at a friendship. Her reverie is broke one day by a frantic sound of horns, echoing throughout the city.

All this time, Hank has been working on his parachute. He believes he has something that will work, but he has no way to test it save in practice. The other task he has been at is wandering the city when he can. He has no official leave to go anywhere but the temple, but there are long stretches where he works without supervision. He has a pretty good knowledge of where things are before a near-discovery causes him to curtail his spying. He continues working thus until one day he hears horns blowing an alarm note.

Gilead has been training endlessly. The leotaur has been added to their group during this time. It is by no means any friendlier, but much of its bluster and threat appears to have been reserved for the arena. They are in the middle of one of their practice sessions when suddenly, they dimly perceive a horn blowing somewhere above them.

The horn that all of them has heard is an alarm. The city is under attack. The raid that Persia has been training for has finally happened. First, a flight of specialized Warhawks has dropped a load of equally specialized myrmidons upon the city. The Warhawks are one use golems. They are large enough to carry a significant payload. The myrmidons are basically the same as normal myrmidons, but larger, deadlier and more durable. They are also a great deal more expensive, but Tallon is pinning a lot on this raid.

The whole purpose of this wave of golems is to draw attention from the main body of attackers. The Dragon is carrying the special strike team up to the city from the opposite direction. The fantastically enhanced beast is carrying Persia, Zane, five paladins and the odd young woman who looks like a prostitute. Persia is never given an adequate explanation of her inclusion.

Since Persia's goal is different from the main group's, she bids farewell to them almost upon arrival. They are going to kill or capture the ship, but she intends to find and rescue Tira. She has no idea where Tira might be if she is a live, but decides to start in the middle of the City. On the way, she has to be careful to avoid the myrmidons.

Hank has seen the myrmidons in person by now and recognizes them to be Tallon-make. He quickly deduces the situation and decides there's no better time to try his escape plan. Hastily, he pulls his bundled parachute from its hiding place and begins running towards Ossa's and Tira.

Tira has problems of her own. She has gone downstairs to ask the headwoman Charna what is going on, when the woman is cut down before her eyes. A horrible mechanical spider thing with scissor-like pincers has invaded the household and is casually slicing up everyone in its path. The golem chooses her as its next target and she runs through the building, trying to find some way to lose or block it. She holes up in the library before it begins to break down the door. She runs to a bedroom and hides in a chest, hoping it cannot track her somehow.

Meanwhile, Gilead and his strike force have been set free. More accurately, their mysterious master has decided the current crisis and confusion is a good time to implement his plan. They are told that they have been rendered "insensible" to those outside. They have been made like the spy Nevan, who infiltrated their transport ship all those months ago. They cannot be seen heard or sensed in any way, save by each other. They quickly discover a few other modifications have been done to them. All people, other than their target appear to them as the person they least wish to harm. To Gilead, everyone looks like Tira. To Kamlak, they all look like his mother. Finally, any attempt to deviate from their mission brings intense pain. All of these things point to their benefactor as being a Brethon Master.

It is not long before Hank runs into Persia. Actually Persia notices something very odd. Hank appears to be flying! In actuality, Gilead and Kamlak have seen Hank. Braving the pain, they have linked his arms and are carrying him along. Hank of course, cannot sense or feel them in any way. He doesn't even feel Gilead's desperate attempt to contact him by carving a "G" in his chest. This action cripples Gilead with pain and he drops Hank. This gives the animate and the beast time to quickly converse and compare notes. They immediately find out that they have the exact same goal: rescue Tira. Persia is shocked to hear of Gilead's death. They have no idea what happened with the mysterious "flight" but decide they cannot waste time on it, particularly when Azrael has appeared nearby and is shouting for "Hank Woodman!"

Gilead continues with Kamlak to rejoin the other assassins, while Hank and Persia run to Ossa's. Gilead and his barbarian friend soon run into a troop of soldiers guided by a seraph who can apparently see them. They become separated when Gilead is forced to jump from a walkway to a level below. By the time he catches up to Kamlak, he has reached the palace.

The throne room is a scene of intense combat. Helios is indeed there, flanked by guards who seem somewhat shimmery. Gilead supposes they are insensible to normal people. His team seems to have been prepared for this. There is also a pair of adepts in the room. Both they and Helios appear to be able to sense them and are giving direction to the others. The battle is very much in favor of Gilead's team until the adepts suddenly give up on guiding the guards and begin using various devotions to attack them directly. Kamlak falls, a shriveled mummy-like thing. Batilla suffers the same fate. In the meantime, Gilead, Capricus and the Leotaur have dealt a series of blows to Helios that have done mortal damage. The Most High falls to the floor, slain.

Strangely, the first feeling that goes through Gilead's head is one of intense hunger: an overwhelming irresistible craving. Before he can act on it, however, an adept strikes him down, shocking his psyche into unconsciousness.

Meanwhile, Persia and Hank have reached Ossa's and found the body of Charna. They do not have to ask what killed her. They are both familiar with the myrmidons which seem to be swarming the city. Hank wedges the door shut with a chisel and they set out to explore the house, splitting up to save time. They each call aloud for Tira, but it is Persia who finds her. Technically, she finds the myrmidon which was chasing her. Before the golem can strike the cat, Tira bursts from her hiding place and tells her to run! The two tear down the hall to the front entrance, calling for Hank to follow. There is a brief pause where Persia must hold off the golem a moment while Tira kicks aside the chisel, but once outside, they find that they are faster than the spider thing. Hank leaves a few moments later, struggling to keep up while avoiding being noticed by the animated killer.

Persia directs Tira to the Glass Ship, having been trained to find it from ground-based observations. When they get there, they find an incredible battle taking place. Neither of them has seen a Paladin in full combat before, and there are four of them here. Between them, they are taking the ship and holding the bridge against five times their number. The enhanced combatants whirl and strike with inhuman speed and strength. Normal soldiers stand no chance against them. Slowly, they are clearing the ship of its crew. Tira desperately clears her mind to contact Carina. The ship informs her that there is still one of its masters aboard. Tira recognizes one of the Paladins to be Jerrick, Gilead's childhood friend. He allows her and Persia to pass. She yells to the Paladins aboard the ship to strike down the one she believes to be the adept, but she mistakes his identity. The true pilot has fallen to the deck and was mistaken for a casualty. He orders the ship to retreat. As it begins to lift away, Tira and Persia leap for the ship. So does one of the remaining Paladins, but at the last moment, a lucky blow strikes deep into Jerrick's arm. He misses his chance for the leap.

Aboard Carina, the remaining pilot is quickly dispatched. Tira is about to talk to Carina, when suddenly the ship begins to scream in her mind. Something is attacking it! She looks about and sees Zane crouching on the deck, attacking the ship's spirit somehow. She screams at him to stop, that she can control it. Zane makes a snap decision and tells her to order the ship down, now!

When she hesitates, thinking of Hank, he threatens to begin the attack again. She gives Carina the order to descend, and the ship obeys. Unknown to Tira, this is a pivotal point in the War. So much hinges on removing the ship from the control of the city, that every member of the strike team would unhesitatingly lay down his or her live to destroy it. If they fail, Tallon falls. Capturing it would be a bonus, but at all costs, it must not return to the control of the Seraphim.

Back on the city, Jerrick has spotted Hank approaching. The manikin saw the ship disappear and began to unfurl his parachute. He offers it to Jerrick, but the Paladin refuses. In fact when Hank again offers, he practically shoves the wooden man from the platform. Hank jumps, his parachute streaming behind him. Jerrick realizes he must create as much of a distraction as possible and runs toward the center of the city, shouting " Death to Helios! Death to Helios!"